Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Graham Allison: How Henry Kissinger Shaped My Life

| Dec. 01, 2023

When Henry Kissinger reached the 100-year marker last Spring, I was fortunate to be able to join with his many friends and admirers in celebrating his birthday and thank him personally for more than I can express in words. In short, he has been a formative force in my life.

About the many contributions of America’s greatest living statesman to America’s peace and security, the historical record speaks for itself. My remembrance will focus on my personal experience with him as a great teacher and mentor to me, as he was to so many other students and assistants over the generations who have tried to follow in his footsteps. At a recent event in which I was interviewing Henry, the host introduced him as the longest-serving and suffering continuing-education professor in Harvard’s 387-year history—and me as his student. While this may have been meant to suggest that I was a slow learner, I took it as a compliment.

I entered Henry’s classroom at Harvard 58 years ago, in 1965. Indeed, I have been learning from him ever since. In the past several years, I’ve had the good fortune to continue meeting or Zooming with him every several weeks. I’ve never come away from one of these sessions without several pages of notes, new insights, and questions that require further thought. In recent decades, I was proud that Henry often introduced me not simply as his student but as a colleague and even as a friend. For me, he has not only been a seminal teacher and mentor, but a personal inspiration.

In one of the highlights of this past January’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, I was asked to interview Henry about his historical perspective on the current war in Ukraine and the risks of war between the United States and China. In noting that he was rapidly approaching the 100th year of his birth, I thanked him for enlarging our conception of a meaningful life. He was a living demonstration that it is possible for a human being to remain intellectually engaged and productive well beyond the conventional Biblical “three score and ten.” He gave the rest of us hope. When someone in the audience observed that the century of Henry’s life covers 40 percent of the history of the United States of America, I reminded them that this was less a reflection of how old Henry was than of how young the United States is.

Over these 247 years, the United States has been blessed to have many great leaders serve as presidents, warriors, and diplomats. But when we ask which of these leaders in statecraft and diplomacy will be studied by students at Harvard 50 years from now, or indeed in 2123, one can be certain that this list will include Henry Kissinger. As another great American statesman, Colin Powell, noted at the celebration of Henry’s 90th birthday: “Unlike the rest of us political appointees, before Henry was a statesman, he was a scholar.”

In 1965, as a first-year graduate student who had just returned to Harvard from two years at Oxford, I enrolled in Government 180: “Principles of International Relations.” This was one of the legendary courses at Harvard that had previously been taught by McGeorge Bundy until he left Cambridge in 1961 to become John F. Kennedy’s National Security Advisor. Henry’s version of the course was grounded in history, which he analyzed to introduce me and his other students to the world of diplomacy, strategy, and statecraft. From the Congress of Vienna (about which Kissinger had written his first book, A World Restored) to Bismarck’s diplomacy in creating the modern state of Germany, the rivalry between a rising Germany and Great Britain that ended in the “Great War” of 1914, the locust years in the intermission between World War I and World War II, the horrors of Nazism and fascism in the 1930s and 40s, to the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and Vietnam—these were topics about which Kissinger delivered two brilliant lectures a week and assigned several hundred pages of mind-stretching weekly reading. Fortunately, I performed well enough in the course to be asked by Professor Kissinger to become his course assistant the following year and the year after that—not only for his basic course but for his graduate Defense Policy Seminar as well. Soon, I found myself also serving as an occasional research assistant, helping him gather and assess material on topics he was writing or consulting for Washington.

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Graham Allison: How Henry Kissinger Shaped My Life
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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Graham Allison: How Henry Kissinger Shaped My Life.” The National Interest, December 1, 2023.